Studies revealed that when humans cry, their dogs also feel distressed. Then, the findings in the journal Learning and Behavior revealed that dogs not only feel distressed when they see that their owners are sad but will also try to do something to help.
In the study, the researchers brought 34 pet dogs of various breeds and sizes into the lab, along with their owners. The owners were asked to sit (good human!) behind a glass door, where the dogs could see and hear them, and to say, "Help," every 15 seconds, in either a monotone or a distressed voice.
Dogs attend more to crying people than to humming people.
In the trials in which the pet owners were acting out a non-distressed state, they were told to hum "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" in between their calls for help. Meanwhile, in the trials where they acted distressed, they were told to make crying sounds in between their calls. The researchers took a video of how the dogs behaved in both scenarios and measured the dogs' heart rates for variability between beats, which could indicate stress.
What's more, the dogs were also able to get through to door to their owners: The door was held shut by three small magnets, so to open it, the dogs just had to lightly touch it, such as with their paws or noses.
Per The Live Science, the researchers found that dogs didn't open the door more often when their owners cried than when they hummed. But the dogs who did open the door opened it about 40 seconds faster when their owners were crying compared with when the owners were humming.
The study saw a huge range of behaviors, including other dogs who were indifferent to their owners' cries.
In addition, by comparing the behaviors of the dogs as they saw and heard their owners cry with how they normally behaved, the researchers found that dogs who pushed through the door showed less stress than those who didn't enter the door. The researchers quantified this via the rate of "stressful behaviors" the dogs exhibited per second.
The researchers noted that they found some variability in the heart rate of the stressed dogs as well, but this data was a bit more difficult to interpret, as you typically need about 2 minutes of data to get a good reading. However, in some cases, the researchers got only around 20 seconds before the dogs opened the door, ending the trial.
Another limitation of the study could be the varying abilities of the humans to act out signs of distress, the authors wrote. In other words, some people were bad at acting.
LEARNING AND BEHAVIOUR: “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs.”